MGSV

Big Boss returns in "Ground Zeroes," the prologue to "Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain."

Konami

For many, the value of a video game is determined by a simple equation: Time divided by price.

In other words, how much money does the player pay per hour? Some won't put down $60 for a game that provides any less than 12. Others, 20.

And then there are players like me, who find this approach to be deeply and dangerously stupid.

Think about where it leads: Developers padding campaigns with repetitive dreck so they can say it's this or that many hours long. Withholding downloadable content because the disc already contains enough length to coax buyers. Littering game worlds with pointless collectibles — feathers, rubber bands — just to keep players who have to do everything on the hook for a few more hours.

I'm not saying that a game's time should be stricken from the record when we're judging it. But there's much more to consider. Like how fun that time is.

"Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes" is a great example. Since it was announced, this cross-generational prologue to the real, 200-times-bigger "Metal Gear Solid V" — "The Phantom Pain" — has been a flashpoint for arguments about game length.

It ranges from $20 on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 to $40 (since slashed to $30) on PlayStation 4 on Xbox One. It can be completed in 10 minutes, or ransacked for meaningful collectibles and S-ranked side ops over the course of 10 hours. It can be a little for a lot, or a lot for a little.

No matter how you experience it, though, it's fun. It's so fun and fully realized that you want to play "Ground Zeroes" until you've memorized the location of every watchtower and every combustible oil drum, and can smoothly negotiate the hazards like a human skeleton key.

Big Boss is the man you do that as — and let's stop right here to address the gravelly voiced elephant in the room: Star Kiefer Sutherland has replaced David Hayter, longtime voice of Big Boss ("Metal Gear Solid 3," "Peace Walker") and his clone, Solid Snake ("MGS," "MGS2" and "MGS4").

It's a jarring change, but not an altogether bad one. Hayter had become a parody of himself in 2010's "Peace Walker," having gone from Clint Eastwood in the first "Solid" to Clint Eastwood gargling wood chips in the most recent. And with creator Hideo Kojima significantly darkening the series' tone in "Ground Zeroes," Hayter just didn't fit anymore.

Sutherland's not a huge step up, though. With Hayter's campiness also went his charisma. Sutherland brings the gruff, but compared to his predecessor, he just sounds like a guy reading lines into a microphone. Then again, he has maybe 10 in all of "Ground Zeroes" — which also marks a drastic change from Kojima's usual gluttony of dialog. So maybe Sutherland deserves the credit for that, somehow.

"Peace Walker" is also crucial to understanding the story of "Ground Zeroes." Much as the title and media campaign paint the game as a prologue to "The Phantom Pain," it's every bit as much an epilogue to Big Boss' Costa Rican adventure. So you should probably play that first.

Big Boss' main objective in "Ground Zeroes" is breaking into an American black site military camp on Cuban soil to rescue "Peace Walker" characters Chico and Paz. And to grasp their role in the greater military-industrial psychodrama that is "Metal Gear Solid," you should probably play the rest of the series first, too.

In play, however, "Ground Zeroes" is a huge departure point for "Metal Gear Solid." There's no more camouflage. No more crowded HUD. No more cardboard boxes to hide in.

Instead, you can see when enemies suspect Big Boss' presence by the appearance of white static on a radial. With binoculars, permanently mapped to the right shoulder button, you can mark those enemies and monitor them through walls. And if you're caught, you have a few slow-motion seconds to silence your spotter before he goes into full guns-blazing alert mode.

It was worrying to hear that Kojima had reworked the series' stealth mechanics so heavily. Take out the names and faces, and "Ground Zeroes" sort of sounds like "Splinter Cell." But within a few minutes of crouching through the mud and the massive helipads of Camp Omega, I was reassured. "Metal Gear Solid" has never felt so finely tuned to deliver cloak-and-dagger thrills. With the streamlined new rules, secrecy feels earned, knockouts are compromises and killing is no less than failure.

That's in large part because the design of "Ground Zeroes" matches the high caliber of its mechanics. As one wide-open map, Camp Omega demands a fundamentally different approach from most "MGS" levels. Enemies Big Boss passes are never to be forgotten about — especially the first few times you play, when you're still figuring out where everything is. Those enemies also patrol and probe Big Boss' footsteps and shadows with sharper AI than ever. And their backup is basically unlimited, too.

The muscle of the PlayStation 4 even plays a part in this experience, extending draw distance almost the full width of the camp. Not coincidentally, enemies can also see you from farther away than ever. And in the stunning dawn and noon light of "Ground Zeroes'" nicely varied side ops, that's pretty far.

To most of this praise comes attached the same words: "It'll be bigger and better in 'The Phantom Pain.'" Indeed, in story and in play, "Ground Zeroes" can't escape the dependency of its existence, the sense of being a small part of a much greater whole. But it's still a few hours of slick, riveting fun. And that's definitely worth something.

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox, or find him on PSN or Xbox Live under the name davewiththeid.

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